The 14-page document says the elementary school mask mandate should remain in place until a vaccine is available for children under 12, and until “there has been sufficient time to allow for children [under 12] to be fully vaccinated.”
The state’s recommendation comes as national medical experts are divided over the necessity of masks inside schools nationwide, which are expected to reopen this fall for five days a week of in-person learning in most places. The country’s leading association of pediatricians, the American Academy of Pediatrics, recommended Monday that everyone over age 2 should wear masks inside classrooms. But officials with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have said vaccinated teachers and students do not need to wear masks inside buildings.
In a statement accompanying the release, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) said he took guidance from both of those agencies into account when deciding on the state’s masking recommendations.
“Virginia has followed science throughout this pandemic, and that’s what we continue to do,” he said. “Again, I strongly urge every eligible Virginian to get vaccinated.”
As summer wanes and the school year approaches, other states are also starting to reveal their masking plans. North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper (D) took to Twitter Wednesday afternoon to “strongly” recommend that students and teachers in kindergarten through 8th grade wear masks indoors regardless of vaccination status next year. He added that unvaccinated high school students and teachers should wear masks indoors, too.
In the Washington region, D.C. public schools are currently requiring masks for all vaccinated and unvaccinated children and employees in school buildings. Health officials have not yet announced final plans for the fall.
In Maryland, Prince George’s County officials said there has been no change in existing policy which requires masks inside schools. In Montgomery County, the school board will discuss masking for the fall at a July 27 meeting. State education officials said that they are currently working with health officials to update state guidelines.
Officials with Fairfax County Public Schools and Loudoun County Public Schools — two of the largest districts in Virginia — said Wednesday that they are now working to formulate their fall masking plans based on the state’s updated guidelines.
“We are reviewing the guidance and reaching out to hear from our community,” said Fairfax spokeswoman Julie Moult. “[We] will share a plan early next week with staff and families.”
The state’s “multitiered approach to student and staff safety seems sensible and reasonable,” Loudoun spokesman Wayde Byard said, promising the school district would issue a decision about masking in the “near future.”
School will be in person throughout Virginia this fall, following a state law passed this summer that requires all school districts to offer face-to-face instruction during the 2021-2022 school year. The guidance published Wednesday suggests that school officials should try to follow “physical distancing of at least 3 feet . . . to the greatest extent possible,” but says schools can reduce the distancing if needed to ensure that all children can attend school in-person.
The document also emphasizes that school administrators should work closely with county health personnel when making decisions about pandemic safety measures.
“Our local school leaders are equipped to make local decisions on mitigation strategies that best fit their needs to ensure the safety of all students and staff,” Virginia’s superintendent of public instruction, James Lane, said in a statement Wednesday.
The document acknowledges these new requirements could pose thorny legal challenges, given school districts might have to ask the vaccination status of employees and schoolchildren to follow the guidance.
“While school divisions regularly confirm school-required immunization records of their students,” it reads, “they should consult with their counsel in determining if and how to confirm student and staff COVID-19 vaccinations.”
The mask guidance is sure to stoke controversy. Virginia parents are already angry and divided over several issues, ranging from schools’ equity work and the alleged teaching of critical race theory to how quickly school districts should soften pandemic safety measures and pursue a return to more normal instruction.
Some families are lamenting schools’ lack of caution, and decrying the fact that most districts in Virginia will require students to come back for in-person instruction this fall, although coronavirus vaccines are not yet available for children under 12. For example, Fairfax County Public Schools — Virginia’s largest — is demanding that students demonstrate a medical need to qualify for remote learning come fall.
But other parents say school officials are exercising too much caution, at a time when students’ academics, mental health and social skills have dropped after more than a year of online learning. They argue schools should have reopened much faster — and with fewer restrictions — over the course of the past year.
Although school districts in rural areas reopened last fall, the large districts in urban, liberal Northern Virginia, such as Fairfax, took much longer to reopen. Recently, a parent group in Fairfax gathered enough signatures — more than 5,000 — to file a recall petition against a school board member over what they alleged was her dereliction of duty in failing to reopen classrooms more swiftly.
Rory Cooper, a Fairfax parent who has been active in the recall effort, posted on social media Wednesday condemning the masking mandate.
“Virginia is going to make little kids who are at near-zero risk pay the price for adults outside of school not getting vaccinated,” he wrote on Twitter.
Perry Stein, Donna St. George and Gregory Schneider contributed to this report.